Memorable charity concert in Helsinki for the benefit of Ukraine

FinlandFinland Helsinki Festival 2022 – Penderecki, Mahler, Azarova, Mozart: Helena Juntunen (soprano), Tuija Knihtilä (mezzo-soprano), Tuomas Katajala (tenor), Arttu Kataja (baritone), Music Centre Choir, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Hannu Lintu (conductor). Music Centre, Helsinki 31.8.2022. (GF)

Hannu Lintu conducts the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra © Jukka Lintinen

PendereckiThrenody to the Memory of the Victims of Hiroshima
Mahler – ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’; ’Der Tamboursg’sell’; ‘Urlicht‘
AzarovaBeyond Context
MozartMaurerische Trauermusik, K.477/479; Requiem in D minor, K.626

The Helsinki Festival is an annual cultural festival in Helsinki, first organized in 1968 and encompassing visual art, film, dance, music, theatre and more. It takes place at the turn of the month from August to September. This year’s festival ran from August 12 to September 4 and one of the most long-expected events was this charity concert for the benefit of Ukraine, a sell-out long in advance.

It opened with Krzysztof Penderecki’s epoch-making Threnody, composed in 1961 for 52 string instruments. The music is notated in seconds, which means that a typical performance should take 8’37’ – also was the original title. Only when Penderecki heard his composition being played was he ‘struck by the emotional charge of the work’ and did he ‘search for associations’, whereupon he decided to dedicate it to the victims of Hiroshima. It was the very first work that employed the cluster technique, where the players also play quartertones and display unorthodox ways of using the instruments, such as playing behind the bridge and hitting the strings with the bow, sometimes beating the body of the instrument, thus producing percussive effects. The effect is sometimes frightening, sometimes eerie and otherworldly. With the ongoing war in Ukraine as a background it is easy to associate the sound masses to human sufferings in the battlefields. As the music slowly died away it moved seamlessly into the orchestral introduction to the first Mahler song, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, like the two other Mahler pieces settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In this song a young man is saying farewell to his beloved because he is going off to war.

It was, again, followed seamlessly by Beyond Context, an orchestral piece by Ukrainian Svitlana Azarova (b.1976). Composed in 2008, it is a colourful work, filled with contrasts and a frenetic use of percussion, especially in the middle section of the work. Here one could associate this music to frightening occurrences, too.

Mahler’s ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’, which followed attacca, tells the sad story about a drummer boy who has been taken prisoner and is condemned to die. His farewell to his friends is a gloomy funeral march.

It is well-known that Mozart was a Freemason during the last few years of his life and in 1785 he composed Maurerische Trauermusik in memory of two Masonic brothers. It is a very unusual work, sounding remarkably modern for its time and at the same time it quotes a Gregorian melody. I have a strong memory of this music from the Vienna State Opera twenty years ago. Swedish tenor Gösta Winbergh had suddenly died a few days before a performance of Fidelio, and the evening began with an oration in his memory, followed by Maurerische Trauermusik. I was again deeply touched when hearing the work in Helsinki.

The first half of the concert concluded with Mahler’s ‘Urlicht’, best known perhaps as the fourth movement of his Second Symphony. The text deals with man’s longing to be closer to God, and the music is strongly emotional. There was a long silence before the applause, and I believe that the whole audience was relieved that the first part was performed without the slightest attempt at clapping.

After the interval the orchestra was joined by the excellent Music Centre Choir and a quartet of soloists for Mozart’s very last composition, the Requiem in D minor. In all honesty it should be said that the work was unfinished when the composer died, and only the opening ‘Requiem Aeternam – Kyrie Eleison’ is entirely by his hand. The rest of the work was completed by his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, who had worked closely with his master and discussed many a detail, and from Mozart’s sketches he managed to create a performing edition, which also included composing the last three movements, ‘Sanctus’, ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ all by himself, since Mozart never got further than sketching them before he died. And it is in Süssmayr’s version that the work has been played ever since. But in 1971 Franz Beyer submitted a revision of the orchestration based on the first movement, which was by Mozart’s hand, and this is the version that has frequently been used since then. It was also the version Hannu Lintu chose.

He conducted the Requiem with obvious affection from the serene ‘Requiem Aeternum’ via the springy rhythms in ‘Dies Irae’ and the monumental ‘Tuba Mirum’, where unfortunately the bass soloist (Arttu Kataja) was too weak in the deepest part of his register – he was referred to as a ‘baritone’ in the programme – and thus was drowned out by the excellent trombone soloist. Generally, the solo quartet was rather uneven, the exception being superb tenor Tuomas Katajala. In passing I should say that Kataja was much more suited to two of the Mahler songs in the first part of the concert, while Tuija Knihtilä’s mezzo-soprano was rather unsteady in ‘Urlicht’.

On the other hand, the Music Centre Choir was truly excellent throughout the Requiem and of course the Radio Symphony Orchestra excelled under Hannu Lintu, whose chief conductor he has been since 2013.

This was truly a memorable evening, stirring and soothing at once.

Göran Forsling

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